13 Questions For 2013 In The World Of Online Advertising

questionsCross-posted at my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

For the past few years, I’ve offered predictions here and on The New Persuaders for what’s likely to come in the next year. I viewed them more as an agenda for what to watch for in the next 12 months than as firm predictions.

But it was too easy sometimes to state the obvious so they’d end up right by year-end. So this year, I’m going to shake it up and throw out a few questions instead. I think I know the answers to some of them, but if many won’t be answered definitively by year-end, they remain top of mind for me and probably for many others in online media and advertising.

So in this, the first full week of the new year, here are some questions to which I hope to start finding answers (and if you’ve got ‘em, sound off in the comments below!):

* Will image advertising finally take off online? I have to believe that as people spend more and more time online instead of reading print publications and watching TV, brand marketers will want and need to reach them there with ads that are aimed at creating consideration for later purchases, not just eliciting an immediate sale like Google’s search ads and too many banner ads. We’re already starting to see signs of such advertising with the early success of Facebook’s Sponsored StoriesTwitter’s Promoted Tweets, and YouTube’s TrueView ads–not to mention the explosion of tablets, which provide a lean-back experience more compatible with image advertising. This won’t be a sudden change, since brand marketers and agencies don’t move quickly, but you can’t tell me there aren’t going to be increasingly compelling ways for brands to influence people online.

* Will native ads reach broad scale? Well, perhaps they will on platforms such as Facebook and–well, Facebook–that already reach hundreds of millions of people. Sponsored Stories clearly have gotten some traction, even on mobile devices. But marketers and agencies won’t create multiple versions of campaigns to serve every new ad format that publishers claim work better than banner ads. Which brings up a related question:

* Will any standards emerge around the social gestures that most of these native ads embody? That’s really the only thing that will ensure that marketers can reach scale across many sites. That wouldn’t be in the interest of big companies such as Facebook and Google, which benefit from proprietary ad formats that can reach their huge audiences. But standards, whether it’s banners of a particular size or ad networks, create a more liquid market that helps hundreds of publishers survive as they provide marketers scalable opportunities to reach big audiences. So are there atomic units of social gestures that could carry brand messages across multiple native ad formats without destroying the appeal of native formats? Maybe there’s a technological fix for this, but it’s clear that a lot more needs to be done.

* Will the long-predicted shakeout in ad tech companies finally happen? It didn’t really occur last year despite a few middling-big acquisitions by Oracle, Salesforce.com, and Google. This year, perhaps new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer will corral a few to try to recharge the company’s ad business. Google, Adobe, and IBM have built out “stacks” of ad tech, but no doubt they can each fill out their offerings. Then there’s Facebook, whose ad exchange is likely to need fleshing out. But even if they each write checks for a few three-letter acronym startups apiece, don’t call it a shakeout. Given the rapid evolution of advertising technologies, and the reality that using data to refine advertising is still in its infancy, it’s a good bet that more companies will still be created than disappear. That should keep the Lumascape as crowded as ever.

* Can advertisers and publishers make ads more personal without scaring people? That’s the $64 billion question, and it likely won’t get answered in full this year. It’s easy for headline-hungry politicians to make a big deal out of Facebook’s latest privacy gaffe or the Wall Street Journal’s or the New York Times’ latest scare story about an ad that followed somebody all over the Web. That’s especially so since Facebook really does push the privacy envelope too far at times, and too many advertisers idiotically chase one more sales conversion at the cost of scaring off hundreds of others or inviting onerous legislation. But making ads more useful to each individual person is not only crucial to online commerce, it’s potentially better for most consumers as well–seriously, I don’t need to see another ad for a fitness center or a new credit card, but that ad for Camper van Beethoven’s new CD had me in a split-second. The answer lies in these two words, everyone: transparency and choice.

* Will mobile advertising work? Well, some of it already does, to hear Google and Facebook tell it. And while those already devalued digital dimes so far turn to pennies when it comes to ads on smartphones and tablets, this still feels more like growing pains than a crisis in online advertising. Sure, the screens are small and people don’t like to be interrupted in their mobile cocoons. So a different kind of advertising is probably needed–clearly, banners don’t cut it on a four-inch screen. But the value to advertisers of knowing your location and maybe the apps you’re using, coupled with knowledge of what your friends like–all with permission, of course–is huge. That permission may be really tough to earn. But if advertisers can offer tangible value, perhaps in the form of useful services related to what you’re doing or looking for or shopping for–and isn’t that the ultimate native ad?–people may loosen their hold on that information.

* Can Larry Page keep Google relevant in the social media age? So far, the no-longer-new CEO has at least kept Google’s mainstream ad business humming. Page has outlasted a year or so of missteps, missed opportunities, antitrust investigations, and bum vocal chords, and arguably emerged with a company that’s leaner, more focused, and more potent than ever. Not only does the recent antitrust victory appear to leave it free to compete unimpeded, but Android is doing better than ever even vs. a very strong Apple ecosystem and Google is about to emerge as a powerhouse in the other half of online advertising: display ads, whether on the desktop or on mobile devices. Page’s big challenge looms as big as ever, though: Can Google play in the social Web vs. Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and more? I don’t know, but this may be the year Page has to provide a more definitive answer.

* Will TV and Web video ads finally come together on Connected TVs, tablets, or other devices? Sure, at some point. Video is video no matter where it runs, and while personal computer users bristle at pre-roll video ads, I’m betting viewers are more amenable to various kinds of ads when they view video on Internet-connected TVs or tablets. And even on PCs, YouTube’s TrueView ads, which you can skip after a few seconds, have proven successful to the tune of several billion dollars last year. Traditional TV advertising will continue to thrive thanks to unassailable economics of the cable-content cabal. But given extensive work by Nielsen, comScore, and others to provide metrics that can extend across TV and the Web, the latter may finally get some serious coin from brand marketers–if not this year, pretty soon thereafter. Especially if Apple works its magic on the television.

* Will Facebook really tick us off with a new feature or privacy “improvement”? Is Mark Zuckerberg CEO of Facebook? Nonetheless, Facebook’s well-worn playbook of pushing beyond social comfort levels, then pulling back just a bit, means we’ll probably see privacy norms get stretched once again.

* Will Apple ever make a real splash in advertising? Don’t bet your iPad on it. I think even the post-Steve Jobs Apple still views ads the way a lot of Silicon Valley still does (mostly in error): ineffective, inelegant, and crass. Apple itself can make great ads, but selling them is an entirely different matter.

* Will Amazon make a real splash in advertising? Oh yeah. All the pieces are in place, from a huge shopping-focused audience to a nearly bulletproof technology infrastructure. Again, it won’t set the world on fire this year, but we’re likely to see the smoke.

* Will Marissa Mayer turn around Yahoo? Not this year. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see signs of a real turn for the first time in about five CEOs. But the real turnaround will take years–if Yahoo’s board has the patience. That’s still an iffy bet worth about as much as a share of Yahoo stock.

* Will I ever figure out the appeal of Reddit and BuzzFeed? Gosh, I hope so. I get that these guys attract massive traffic, but neither site does much for me. Reddit, in particular, seems so random that I guess it must be the channel-surfing of today’s generation, only with somewhat more worthwhile nuggets. But for pete’s sake, there’s so much noise for the signal you get, and even the most popular noise can be many hours, days, or even months old. Go ahead, call me a geezer who doesn’t get it. You wouldn’t be the first, and maybe you’re right. So I will continue to click over to them until I see the light, my brain explodes, or the next phenom looks more worth wasting my remaining years on.

I have a lot more questions, but I’ve got to stop before too much of 2013 is gone.

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Venture Capitalists: We’re Doing Fine! Really!

4444 students from 25 schools in Gwalior

Image: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

With so much turmoil in the venture capital business, from the rise of competing super-angel investors to tepid fund returns for the past 10 years to some big IPO duds this year from the likes of Facebook, the future of this economic engine of innovation is pretty murky. But to hear VC investors on the opening panel of the Silicon Valley Venture Summit held annually in the coast-side community of Half Moon Bay by business media network AlwaysOn, there’s not much to worry about.

On the panel addressing the “VC & Investor Outlook for Global Silicon Valley” were host Packy Kelly, partner and co-head of KPMG’s U.S. Venture Capital Practice; Norm Fogelsong, general partner at later-stage VC Institutional Venture Partners; Neal Dempsey, managing general partner at early-stage VC Bay Partners, which has gone through its own travails in the past couple of years; and Gaurav Tewari, director of SAP Ventures. Here’s what they had to say about the state of the VC business:

Q: Where are we in terms of the VC cycles today?

Fogelsong: The industry’s healthy. Things got quite excessive in the bubble, and now we’re back up to $15 billion to $20 billion that’s healthy for the industry.

Dempsey: Companies are going to have major exits, and I’m convinced it’s going to be fine over time.

Tewari: The pace of innovation and entrepreneurship is just accelerating. It’s a very exciting time. The numbers are mixed. The number of folks in the industry has shrunk 30% in recent years.

Q: Is there still ample capital to invest?

Fogelsong: Yes. But we’re still burning off the excess of the bubble.

Q: How have things changed in terms of the choices entrepreneurs have now–angels, seed funds, accelerators?

Dempsey: It’s only better for the industry. The angels provide this huge infrastructure of small investments that we can’t make. We can see what trends or companies are working. When we get involved, [unlike angels who make dozens of investments a year], we’re hands-on.

Fogelsong: But if you’re thinking of getting angel financing, get an experienced angel. Some of the new ones don’t realize their investments are going to need follow-on financing. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Jeff Bezos: How Amazon Web Services Is Just Like The Kindle Business

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Amazon Web Services, which provides computing and storage services to hundreds of businesses, began as a seemingly crazy idea in 2006, but it has since grown into a $1.5 billion business this year,  according to a new report from R.W. Baird. It’s believed to be one of Amazon.com’s fastest-growing businesses, the largest piece of an “other” revenue category that grew 68% in the third quarter, to $648 million, far outpacing overall company revenue growth of 27%.

Today, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos offered an explanation of how AWS, often seen as something that has little to do with its core retail operation, fits into Amazon’s business, and how it runs on similar principles. In fact, he says, it’s quite similar to Amazon’s Kindle business, where the company makes little money on the device but a lot more if it’s used–in that case to buy lots of books and movies.

Bezos made his comments, which were webcast early Thursday afternoon, to close the company’s first public conference on Amazon Web Services, a three-day geekfest that started Tuesday in Las Vegas. Following are his edited and sometimes paraphrased comments in conversation with Werner Vogels, Amazon’s chief technology officer, sometimes ranging well beyond AWS to entrepreneurship, rockets, and a humongous clock in the mountains of west Texas. (Unfortunately, he had nothing to say about Amazon’s surprisingly large ad business.) You can view the whole keynote here or click the video above.

Vogels: The last time you were onstage, at the Kindle Fire announcement, you said that Amazon should only win when our customers win, and that’s how the Kindle Fire business works. I’d like to think AWS also works that way, but elaborate on that.

Bezos: It’s very similar to our Kindle device business. We sell our hardware near break-even, so we make money when people USE the device, not when they BUY the device. That is very aligning with customers. It causes us to have the right behaviors.

AWS is very similar. It’s a pay-as-you-go service. We’re not incented to get people to overpay for hardware. In the long run, that will work out very well for customers, and it will work out very well for Amazon.

Vogels: You’ve always talked about flywheels, which in Amazon retail is low prices, convenience, etc. What’s the flywheel in AWS?

Bezos: I always get the question, what’s going to change in 1o years? I almost never get asked, what’s NOT going to change in the next 10 years? That’s the more important question, because you can build a business around things that are stable. One is low prices. Another is faster delivery. Vast selection.

On AWS, the big ideas are also pretty straightforward. People will want more reliability, lower prices, etc. The big ideas in business are often very obvious. But it’s hard to keep a firm grasp of the obvious.

Vogels: What are the real mechanisms of innovation?

Bezos: Innovation is a point of view. You have to select people that want to innovate, to explore. An explorer company isn’t for everybody. But for people who get up in the morning and want to change things, it’s a lot of fun.

Other things important for innovation isn’t as fun. One is you have to have a willingness to fail, to be misunderstood for long periods of time. Then, you can ramp up your rate of experimentation. Successful invention requires you to increase your rate of experimentation. AWS is one of those things that helps startups do experimentation faster. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Exec Survey: Obama Will Win, Tech Economy Will Lose

US President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney following their first debate. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)

A new survey shows a large majority of technology leaders thinks President Obama will win re-election. But by a somewhat smaller but still large margin, they think Republican challenger Mitt Romney would be better for the technology economy.

Those are the chief results of a survey conducted recently and released today by the law firm DLA Piper at its technology summit today in Menlo Park, Calif. They may not be particularly surprising, but the margin by which the tech executives assume another four years of Obama is likely seems striking–especially with Romney possibly gaining support in Silicon Valley.

Even as they believe Romney would be better for their businesses, their widespread assumption of an Obama victory suggests they’re opting not to engage in wishful thinking. (To be clear, however, there could be some selection bias, since only 220 executives out of 5,000 who were sent the survey responded.)

But the clear majority do wish Romney would pull off a come-from-behind victory. Some 60% said they’re skeptical that a second Obama administration would be positive for the technology business. That’s a complete reverse of their feelings four years ago, when 60% thought Obama would be better for tech than Republican John McCain. However, a separate question about whether executives agreed with the statement that Obama would be positive for the tech industry revealed that 42% did, while 21% were neutral. …

Read the complete survey results at The New Persuaders.

How Steve Jobs’ Laughable Early Apple Ads Evolved Into Today’s Marketing Marvels

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

To look at Apple’s classic advertisements, from the stark, bold “Think Different” campaign to the playful “Get a Mac” series to those minimalist silhouetted iPod ads, you’d never guess that early Apple ads were so–not to put too fine a point on it–awful.

On the one-year anniversary of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs’ untimely death, we scrounged up a baker’s dozen of early Apple ads in the accompanying photo gallery for your amusement and edification. They’re print ads in particular, since it was pretty early days to be advertising computers on television. Still, most them wouldn’t be recognizable as Apple ads if not for the name and early logos.

They weren’t especially worse than other computer ads at the time. Maybe they were even marginally better. But they were anything but special, let alone cool.

What’s interesting is not just that Apple’s early ads look so depressingly conventional. It’s that a few of them revealed flashes of Jobs’ future marvels of marketing. Once Jobs got past the initial “speeds and feeds” marketing imperative during a time when Apple was really just one, albeit prominent, competitor in a sea of pre-Windows, pre-Mac personal computer makers, he began to develop an eye for brand marketing that few companies in technology or any other industry have since surpassed.

Take a close look at these early ads, and you can see that Apple’s evolution to the pinnacle of brand marketing happened not in a straight line, but in a sort of punctuated equilibrium that parallels the gradual maturing of computing itself. At first, PCs were for hobbyists interested in performance and features, and the ads reflected that. But as the machines began to sell into the millions, Apple’s ads began to emphasize how they were “the computer for the rest of us,” as the first Macintosh ads called them.

That first one for the Apple-1 in 1976, rivetingly entitled “A Balance of Features,” was appallingly amateurish. The ad, released only a few months after Jobs and Steve Wozniak showed the prototype at the Homebrew Computer Club in SiliconValley and incorporated their company, was stuffed full of technical features in a way that’s unimaginable today. For instance, the ad touted the ability to attach a keyboard and monitor to allow “the efficient entry and examination of programs in hexidecimal notation.” Who knew?

There was even a misspelling in the first line, a sign that Jobs’ famous perfectionism hadn’t quite kicked in yet. …

Read the complete post, including a photo gallery of the ads, at The New Persuaders.

Experts Trump Friends (And Facebook) For Advice On Buying Tech Products

Problem for Facebook and Twitter?

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

To hear Facebook tell it, its Sponsored Stories, which let marketers tap people’s comments or “likes” of products to create an ad for their friends, are the future of advertising. And they’re apparently doing quite well for the social network.

But when it comes to technology products in particular, which account for more than a fifth of online advertising, friends, social networks, and even any kind of advertising all rank well below articles by experts in the field when it comes to consumers researching what to buy. That’s according to a recent survey by tech blog network NetShelter Technology Media, for which audience tracker Crowd Science polled more than 1,000 people on 74 tech blogs such as 9to5Mac, Crackberry.com, and MacRumors.

Some tidbits from the survey:

* 85% of respondents said the most useful and influential online content when they’re considering buying tech products are articles, reviews, blog posts, and videos by experts. That’s far more than 35% who cited brand content, 33% who trust family and friends, and just 6% who are most influenced by advertising.

* 70% of people said they don’t turn to Facebook, Twitter, or other social media when they want to buy a tech product. Only 9% consult a Facebook brand page, 4% consider brand “likes,” and 8% pay attention to likes or recommendations from Facebook friends.

* Email is the preferred way 69% of people like to share articles and reviews, while 37% use Facebook, 15% use Twitter, and 20% use LinkedIn. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

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